When a couple with children divorces, it should be a priority to make the split as easy and comfortable for the children as possible. This can be particularly hard in the wake of the breakdown of a marriage, when both partners are still feeling raw emotions and could probably do with a break from each other to heal and move on.
More often than not, the Family Court is now granting joint custody to divorcing parents – believing that it is in everyone’s best interests for the duties and the joys of raising children to be evenly split, so that neither parent is losing out on access, and the children are able to maintain an easy relationship with both their parents.
However, this means it is up to two people who couldn’t make their relationship work when they were together, to work out some kind of a system for sharing responsibility for their children, and for communicating with each other so that the children get the level of care that they deserve. It’s a minefield. But some couples make it work. We spoke to two women who – while they don’t pretend it’s easy – have managed to make coparenting work for them. They shared their stories with us.
Noelle’s storyThe first thing that Warren and I had to work out was the scheduling of the actual custody arrangement. At first we tried to have Aaron for half the week and half the weekend each, alternating “shifts”. But we just found that he wasn’t ever settling into one home before he was shuttled off to the other, and that Warren and I struggled to keep track of whose day on it was when we were trying to make plans for Aaron or ourselves. So we agreed that we would instead take one whole week on and one whole week off – which makes it devastating saying goodbye at the end of our time, but allows everyone to settle into a proper routine. It helps that we live near to each other and have a cordial relationship, so either of us can pop in for a visit if we’re really missing Aaron.
Then we had to work on communication. We broke up because of our incompatibility and inability to communicate around our issues, and being divorced certainly didn’t make it easier for us to get our points across or to understand the other person’s point of view. I’ve had to accept that Warren will always be more passive than I would like, and I guess he finds me overbearing and controlling. In the end, what really worked for us was to go to parenting counselling where we could both make our cases to each other with a neutral “referee” and actually resolve areas of conflict.
From a purely practical perspective, we have a couple of tricks to keep everything ticking along smoothly. We take photos of notices that come home with Aaron from school and WhatsApp them to each other. On handover days, we make a point of taking the time to sit down together for a cup of tea to get a full update on the week, and to normalise our relationship for Aaron – because we’d hate him to ever feel that he’s caught in the middle. I don’t think our situation is perfect, but we both try really hard because Aaron is our number-one priority, and his happiness is worth whatever discomfort we have to go through to make it work.
Catherine’s storyWe were lucky, if you can call it that, that we split up before Cam was 18 months old – so for her, being parented by two separate individuals was a way of life since she was very young. There was no messy divorce and she didn’t have to live with parents who were constantly fighting. In fact, she always felt lucky to have a larger family than other children and it was only quite recently, when she was nine, that she started to realise the complexities of being raised by co-parents. We do what we can to make it easy for her.
In terms of scheduling and admin, we keep each other informed, to the point of being pedantic about our schedules, and give each other ample warning when we can’t stick to our usual arrangements for the weekend or other commitments. We know that it takes two to tango in this coparenting dance, so we are considerate of each other, because that’s also how we would like to be treated. Of course, we also accept that emergencies happen and that’s a part of life.
We’ve been fortunate in that we didn’t have too many emotional issues to deal with between us. Of course, we split up for a reason and it was hard, but we were able to overcome any anger or discord by being upfront about it. We also remember that we have a large family who supports us no matter what, and that helps us to deal with any potential conflict. One of our tricks is to deal with difficult topics over email, so that it stays away from the reality of life, and we are able to respond to each other around Cam without arguing.
It sounds like we have it easy, but it’s not. It takes hard work and committed focus from everyone in our family to make it work. At the heart of it, there’s a really great person in my life who happens to be my daughter’s dad. I respect him infinitely even when I disagree with him, and that goes both ways. It’s infinitely easier when you all remember that you’re on the same team – your child’s. I know, without a doubt, that even when I disagree with him, he’s doing his best for our daughter, and that he feels the same way about me.
Top tips for co-parenting Noelle’s and Catherine’s stories are inspirational, and they show that just like every family is unique, so is every divorced family. They need their own solutions for their own challenges and issues. However, there are some rules that are constant for any coparenting couple. They are:
- Communication is vital. If you can’t get your message across, see a counsellor to help you to work out a parenting and communication plan.
- Let go of your conviction that your way is the only correct way to parent. Let your ex also have a voice and negotiate and compromise where appropriate.
- Work out a practical system for keeping each other informed about important matters relating to your child, their socialising and their schooling. Be aware of problem areas and try to solve them without resorting to blaming your ex.
- Don’t make your children pawns in the divorce game. No matter how messy the divorce, never use your children to get at your ex, and never bad mouth your ex to your children.
- Be flexible. While you have to have a parenting schedule, allow for deviations from it if necessary. There’s no reason that you and your ex shouldn’t help each other out when it’s the care of your children that’s at stake.
- Consider the other parent in the same way as you would like to be considered.
- It’s not about you. Remember that the most important thing is your child’s happiness and security. Prioritise those above all else – including your own anger or hurt feelings.
It’s not easy being divorced and still raising a child together. But with a commitment to the wellbeing of your child, and the intention to make the situation work out in the best possible way for everyone, it’s possible to turn a complicated situation into a positive one – it just takes hard work.